UK Supreme Court Hears Plumber’s Gig Economy Case

UK Supreme Court Hears Plumber’s Gig Economy Case

A year ago, UK plumber Gary Smith won a case in the Court of Appeal against Pimlico Plumbers, where he had worked for six years and from which he contended he was unfairly dismissed after seeking to reduce his hours. Pimlico considered Smith a self-employed independent contractor and contended it had no obligations to him as an employee. The Court of Appeal accepted that he was not an employee, but ruled that he was properly classified as a worker, entitling him to some (but not all) the rights enjoyed by regular employees, such as holiday and sick pay.

The company chose to appeal that ruling further, and on Tuesday, the UK Supreme Court began hearing arguments in the case, the BBC reports:

The case hinges on the distinction between Mr Smith’s status as either a self-employed contractor, or a worker for the company. He was VAT-registered and paying tax on a self-employed basis, but worked solely for Pimlico Plumbers. After he suffered a heart attack in 2010, Mr Smith, from Kent, wanted to work three days a week rather than five. Pimlico refused his request and took away his branded van, which he had hired. He claims he was dismissed. …

[Charlie] Mullins, the founder of London-based Pimlico Plumbers, says that plumbers were hired on the basis that they were self-employed, provided their own materials and did not have workers’ benefits, but were paid significantly more as a result. He argues that the case has nothing to do with the gig economy and that Mr Smith is not in the same as an Uber driver.

At Personnel Today, Rob Moss takes a closer look at both sides of the case, noting that the Court of Appeal ruled in Smith’s favor largely on the basis that his contract with Pimlico required him to provide his services personally, such that he could not re-subcontract the work out to someone else. From Mullins’s point of view, however, that was a fair requirement to ask of a highly skilled contractor:

“In one three-year period Mr Smith earned more than £500,000 as a self-employed contractor, but when his circumstances changed he wanted me to foot the bill for sick and holiday pay, as well as to grant him other employment rights, which he was not entitled to, and which in my view he had already been paid to take care of for himself.”

Mullins claimed the case is not like Uber and other gig economy cases. “The engineers who contract to Pimlico Plumbers are very highly-skilled individuals, can go anywhere and do whatever they want.”

British courts have handed down a variety of opinions on the rights of the growing number of UK citizens working contingent jobs as freelancers, contractors, or gig economy workers. The most high-profile of these was an employment tribunal’s ruling against Uber, finding that its drivers were employees and thus entitled to minimum wage, overtime/holiday pay, and other protected benefits. Other gig economy cases have produced split opinions, however: A bicycle courier working through the platform CitySprint was adjudged an employee, whereas delivery workers for Deliveroo were found to be self-employed, mainly because of their contractual right to hand their work over to a substitute.

The government recently issued a set of proposals for reforming employment laws and regulations so as to provide gig economy workers with more protections while maintaining the flexibility that this form of work enables for both workers and employers.